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Certified Ethical Hacker vs. CompTIA PenTest+: Which One Should You Choose?

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By: Cybrary Staff

September 20, 2021

While the CEH and the CompTIA PenTest+ are very similar certifications, there are important differences candidates should be aware of before they decide.

Summary: The Certified Ethical Hacker and CompTIA PenTest+ accreditations have a lot in common, and both are widely recognized. However, there are some important differences that candidates should be aware of before they pursue one or the other. This blog looks at the pros and cons of each option.

It is no secret that cybersecurity skills are in enormous demand and that there is still a shortage of them around the world. Experts in the space can expect to earn very respectable salaries across a huge range of industries. However, given the broadness and complexity of the area, it is almost always necessary to earn a relevant certification in addition to formal education.

Penetration testing and ethical hacking are two rapidly emerging specialty areas built around the need for proactive security in a constantly evolving threat landscape. The Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and CompTIA PenTest+ accreditation are two of the most widely recognized in the industry. However, while they have a lot in common, there are some important differences.

Ethical hacking and penetration testing are different things

The first and most important thing to remember when choosing between the two certifications is that they cover two different areas despite what they have in common. Ethical hacking is not the same thing as penetration testing to the point that comparing the two is misleading. One of the most common misconceptions about the PenTest+ certification is that it typically involves taking an ethical hacking course, which it is not.

The truth is that ethical hacking is a much broader topic area than penetration testing. Moreover, many ethical hackers do not even get directly involved in penetration testing, although they often work closely with experts in the space. Ethical hacking serves as the foundation for the reconnaissance and intelligence operations of Computer Network Attack (CNA) and Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) teams. Other ethical hackers are technicians in proactive threat hunting teams, intrusion detection and prevention, and a myriad of other areas. To that end, ethical hacking is a practice that broadly refers to the tools and tactics used by malicious actors, albeit in an ethical manner.

By contrast, penetration testing is a coordinated assessment process always performed by a contracted team involving certified experts. Organizations define the scope of these tests, and penetration testers will then attempt to find weaknesses in their existing security controls. They will then provide a comprehensive report on their findings that includes detailed descriptions of any vulnerabilities found. These tests are extremely valuable in risk management.

As such, penetration testing is a highly specialized approach, while ethical hacking refers to a broader concept covering attack vectors, hacking tactics, and associated tools.

Which certification should people choose?

Both certifications carry a great deal of respect. The CEH accreditation has been around for over 15 years, and the US Department of Defense formally recognizes it as a baseline certification. By comparison, the PenTest+ is a relatively new accreditation, although it recently became recognized by the DoD too. It is also highly respected, owing to the difficulty of the exam and the fact that the certification provider CompTIA is a globally recognized authority in the cybersecurity space.

The choice largely revolves around the career ambitions and interests of the candidate. Both fields are highly technical but demand a different set of skills and experience. Although it is not strictly required, certified ethical hackers should have at least two years of work experience in the information security domain. By contrast, PenTest+ recommends at least three years of experience, but again, it is not a requirement. CompTIA also recommends first pursuing the Network+ and Security+ certifications or their equivalents from other certification providers.

As far as the exam goes, the CEH takes up to four hours and includes 125 questions, while the PenTest+ is only two hours and 45 minutes long and includes 85 questions. The CEH is also one of the most expensive certifications to earn, weighing in at $1,199 and a non-refundable $100 application fee. The PenTest+ only costs $349. However, since both options open the door to numerous well-paid jobs, the price point should definitely not be the primary concern for potential candidates.

Since the DoD approved the Pentest+ in 2020, it carries a lot more weight than it did before. Because of this, both certifications can now get candidates into jobs as cybersecurity service providers, incident responders, and auditors in the DoD and other critical industries.

Another important consideration is the recertification process. Almost all certifications in the information security field require recertification due to the constantly changing technology and threat landscape. Both have a similar recertification process and are valid for three years. Recertification for the CEH requires 120 EC-Council Continuing Education (ECE) credits and an annual membership fee of $80. The PenTest+ requires 60 Continuing Education Units (CEU). In both cases, ECE and CEU credits can be earned by working in the relevant areas or by taking on additional training.

Final words

Both certifications have their pros and cons. They have also been approved as DoDD 8140 (formerly, DoDD 8570) baseline certifications are also enormously important for recognition. In the end, the choice largely depends on the candidate’s career ambitions and experience. Most of all, ethical hacking and penetration testing are two different areas that cannot be ignored.

Cybrary is an all-in-one workforce development platform, helping individuals and organizations develop stronger cybersecurity skills, prepare for new certifications, and track progress. Get started with our penetration testing and ethical hacking course to learn more.

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